At a recent synod Zoom meeting, Judy, one of the lay leaders, awakened the group with a profound truth. She gave an honest and revealing answer when a pastor asked her what church was like for her these days. Judy responded, “I like the flexibility. I can watch worship whenever I want and I can easily attend different worship services. Those are all good things. For me, the biggest transition is not worshipping online. It is facing the reality that now I have to take responsibility for my own spiritual life.”
Silence followed. Her wisdom illuminated the church’s core challenge.
As COVID forced the closing of church buildings, church leaders scrambled to move worship online. Pastors experimented with online worship, and once they established new routines, other areas of concern became the focus of innovation. This next wave of innovation emerged out of need, urgency, and making meaning. But what exactly does it entail? What happens when building closures continue for months and regular spiritual patterns are disrupted for the unforeseen future?
Because we were curious and wanted to explore these questions, we asked leaders what promising innovation looks like for them now that we are months into the disruption. One pastoral intern, Bethany Walker, shared her story. She serves Faith Lutheran and Rock Creek Lutheran churches, two 75-member congregations in Durand and Mondovi, Wisconsin. Their innovation has been simple and organic. Early in the pandemic, for example, Pastor Bethany missed connecting with their youngest members. She started “Pastor and Pajamas”—a Zoom-based storytime where she reads three children’s books and one Bible story for kids before bed. Pastor Bethany believes parents are best situated to nurture their children’s faith, so she used this moment to connect families and young children with the church and empower parents to embrace their role in faith formation. She followed her experiment with two innovative programs: at-home VBS, which she co-led with a local UMC pastor and a team of volunteers, and at-home Sunday school in the fall.
Pastor Bethany remains actively looking for ways to support formation among families, and she knows children are not the only ones longing for spiritual companions. So she and her leadership team launched SPA nights, a spiritual practice awakening gathering for adults. This opportunity involves coming together for 30 to 45 minutes each week to engage in a spiritual practice on Zoom. It is a tangible, life-giving way for people to journey together during COVID, using spiritual practices to connect faith to everyday life. Admittedly, these seemingly simple activities require intentionality. Pastor Bethany knows firsthand how much energy it takes to explore new approaches to ministry, but she is confident that addressing faith formation is central to her call. Despite being over thirty weeks into a pandemic with no end in sight, she and her leadership team continue to listen to people’s needs and find creative ways to accompany them on faith journeys happening largely outside the church’s walls.
This brings us back to Judy’s ground-breaking observations. Most of us would agree that sanctuary worship and programs are the primary way ministry has been packaged for decades. This approach worked well when Christianity enjoyed a privileged status within the culture: Sunday mornings were set aside for worship and Wednesday evenings were reserved for other church activities. But most congregations continue to use the same approaches even as Christianity loses its place of prominence in society. We’ve already seen that change has become necessary. What if the combined forces of the pandemic, our current social unrest, and the exposure of systemic inequality are accelerating the pace of the change and clarifying our deeper challenge? How might congregations shift their thinking in light of this and take Judy’s comments seriously?
In my book Journeying in the Wilderness, I (Terri) state that congregations are called to steward the future witness to the Christian faith. Living that calling requires asking how we might accompany people in discovering what it means to be a Christian in this time and context. We need different models of ministry because the ones we have relied on were designed for a very different time. Congregations are not providers of religious goods and services. They are dynamic, living communities of sojourners accompanying each other in discovering a Christian way of life. What if this disruptive moment is an opportunity to redesign ministry to better accomplish that goal and to experiment with different ministry approaches informed by different questions?
Some churches are rising to meet this challenge. Sheridan Lutheran Church, a 4,000-member congregation in Lincoln, Nebraska, has used these disruptions to experiment with new ways of accompanying people in their faith. Before COVID, they were almost exclusively focused on who was present in the building. Director of Ministries Amy Wagner said, “It was not that we forgot about people not here, but just that we poured graciously and abundantly into the faces of whom we saw.” Their experiments have stretched them, forcing them to let go of their fear and adopt a new posture. Amy continues, “It is not comfortable, but we can live into it. And that’s allowed us to look beyond who is physically here and challenged us to train and equip people to live their faith.”
The Sheridan church leaders have made some important discoveries. They can gather confirmation candidates via Zoom for teaching and small groups and simultaneously provide tools and practices for families to learn at home. They can distribute Bibles to parents of three-year-olds so the parents can place the book into their child’s hands and share pictures of their child reading it, and the community can bless these children during online worship. They can use online platforms like Facebook Live, Google Classroom, and Vimeo as well as sanctuaries, narthexes, and fellowship halls to accompany people on their faith journey. As they look to the future, the Sheridan leaders are imagining a future that combines in-person gatherings with digital spaces as a way to continue serving both those inside and outside of their building. They have made a fundamental and philosophical shift to their ministry that will bear fruit long after the pandemic.
Ancient and contemporary spiritual practices ground a life of faith. This has been true throughout history and, as Judy, Pastor Bethany, and the Sheridan leaders have found, it is especially true now. Taking responsibility for our own spiritual life has become a necessity in this time, and church leaders are called to attend to how people engage these practices and make meaning in the midst of our current realities. Because faith is a communal endeavor, relationships will always be key to ministry. The disruptions we are seeing now highlight our basic human need for community and, in particular, the distinctive nature of Christian community as a place for faith formation. As we navigate our present circumstances, let’s consider how God may be inviting us to discover new approaches to Christian community that engage people in every space, both in person and online.
About the Authors
Terri Martinson Elton is the Associate Professor of Leadership at Luther Seminary. Having served 20 years in congregational and synodical leadership before coming to Luther, Terri is deeply committed to accompanying congregations in discovering new expressions of ministry. Terri has co-authored a book on Leading Congregations and Nonprofits in a Connected World with Rabbi Hayim Herring, researched and written about Cultivating Teen Faith, and has a new book, Journeying the Wilderness: Forming Faith in the 21st Century, coming out this spring.
Tessa Pinkstaff is a project manager and grant writer at Luther Seminary who serves on the Innovation Leadership Team. She leads the weekly Dwelling in the Word webcast for Faith+Lead. Tessa is passionate about spiritual disciplines—including silence and solitude—as a means for developing an intimate relationship with God. She has a Bachelor of Arts in Social Science from the University of Northwestern–St. Paul and is nearing completion of a Master of Ministry from Bethel Seminary. Tessa looks forward to earning a certificate in spiritual direction from Christos in Lino Lakes.
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